At the end of Rackham Symphony Choir’s 2012-2013 season, a couple weeks removed from my last gig with them, I gotta say my fondest memory was performing Voices of Light at the Detroit Film Theater in March. It was just…wow.
Voices of Light is a choral/orchestral piece written to accompany one of the greatest silent films of all time: The Passion of Joan of Arc. Composer Richard Einhorn went to France and had an epiphany watching Joan; he saw the possibility of composing a whole new soundtrack to the film. It reminded me of Philip Glass’s soundtrack to the old Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast, only Joan was a silent movie, and there was no need to sync up vocal music with dialogue. For that, Voices of Light stands on its own (for now – I can see this setting a precedent for other composers to let themselves be inspired by classic film and see what’s possible for multimedia presentations of their work).
And among large-scale choral pieces I’ve sung, this certainly stands alone, at the top. Most of the text I’d never heard of; I’ve sung plenty of Hildegard von Bingen before, but none of the other Latin and Middle French texts that make up the libretto – certainly not the letters of Joan herself. There are also bits of inspiration from Medieval mystics, some of whom were heretics like Joan, others more accepted by orthodoxy, like Hildegard (although I think if you read deeply enough someone could call at least a little of her stuff heretical). So the text was unique. Also, the flow of the music had to fit the flow of the movie. It exists in movements, but the divisions are seamless, and within a movement you could experience a thousand different moods and ideas, all flowing with the story.
But beyond all that, the performance experience was the most unique thing I’d ever been a part of. We performed at the Detroit Film Theatre, a place not particularly known for musical concerts of any kind, though it has hosted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other folks presenting multimedia work. We sat in risers a little bit behind and under the giant screen, able to see only the orchestra pit and a fraction of the sold-out audience. We were in semi-darkness; some hardly able to read our scores – at least one did the smart thing and put the score on her iPad. The acoustics were dry and dead; one could only hear the singers immediately around them if it weren’t for the monitors backstage. It was like singing in a sensory-deprivation chamber.
And then we had to put out a full-on choral sound with all the dynamics and nuance the music demanded, all while following Maestra Suzanne’s tempo, which was expected to fluctuate depending on how we flowed with the film. Maestra lifted her eyes rarely at us, mostly to see the screen and what was happening. She was entirely focused on that and on directing traffic, so she couldn’t give as much to eliciting expression from the 80-odd singers in front of her. She had to play traffic cop for an hour and a half. She wasn’t using a click track either. She went entirely on the visual cues of the movie. So we had to be totally on alert, to be self-sufficient and at the same time dependent on her cues.
Not much attention was given to the singers’ expression and extracting the emotion of the text. We were advised to keep our eyes up for sure, but not for the purpose of telling the story – the movie was doing that just fine. We were telling the story, but not as a theatrical element, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. We were more like members of the pit orchestra. Our text served to provide comment and a spiritual backdrop to the story. It was up to us to bring succor to an otherwise brutal and intense movie about Joan’s suffering and martyrdom – the movie had a freaking bloodletting scene in it, and contortionists, in addition to one of the most famous public executions of all time. The choir is set up to be a sort of audience proxy to all this, to be people witnessing the story and trying to make sense out of it by placing it in history, among stories of persecution, inspiration and spiritual enlightenment. Similarly, the movie itself is not a biopic, nor a documentary, nor even a kind of epic film adventure like Ben Hur. It’s an isolated episode of Joan’s life, and a tiny but defining moment in French history, told with little one-on-one dialogues and extreme close-ups. It’s an intimate story, and so the music of the choir is just as intimate, a private window into the lives of mystics. And even though we didn’t have to show it on our faces, the emotion bled through with every utterance: “O feminea forma…O soror sapientiae… (O feminine form…O sister of Wisdom…).”
And so we sang, slotted in rows toward the extreme rear of the stage, behind that giant screen, in near-darkness, unable to see or hear, but with senses sharpened to feel beyond what we could normally perceive as singers. It was a very monkish sort of way to sing, like you’re in some Medieval choir stalls at Notre Dame; only here, your voice doesn’t ring in any rafters but gets sucked up into the blackness of the film theater, with no reverberation to greet you on its return. You feel alone. But Joan did, too. And I guess that’s the point of the whole performance. As part of the entertainment package, you get to be alone there with Joan as she goes through her ordeal. And so, Einhorn’s music asks: Isn’t it in moments like that where the presence of God is felt?